Michigan basketball's Hunter Dickinson adjusts to life as freshman center. It's hard

Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
·6 min read

Hunter Dickinson considered the poetic symmetry of it all.

Close to 30 years ago, Juwan Howard made waves as part of the Fab Five.

Now, with Howard as head coach of Michigan basketball, Dickinson is a freshman center hoping to make an immediate impact. The 7-foot-1, 255-pound big man is the largest member of Howard's first full recruiting class — and a foundational prospect for the program.

He just wishes he had one more classmate.

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"We’re aware that we’re Juwan’s first children, so to say," Dickinson said Tuesday afternoon. "We’re his first project and we've talked about it. Of course, we would’ve hoped to have five so we could have the next Fab Five in there. But we have four great players. The other three freshmen are people who I'm gonna be friends with for the rest of my life.

"We're gonna try to leave our legacy as the Fab Four, I guess, at Michigan and hope to cement ourselves with Juwan as his first recruiting class."

Michigan basketball's Hunter Dickinson talks Oct. 27, 2020, about going out on the water with Wolverines teammates and adjusting to the NCAA game.
Michigan basketball's Hunter Dickinson talks Oct. 27, 2020, about going out on the water with Wolverines teammates and adjusting to the NCAA game.

Expectations are high for Dickinson and his fellow classmates. But he, above all others, may be called upon to play the biggest role this season. Dickinson is one of two scholarship centers on the roster; the other, fifth-year senior Austin Davis, has never started a game. The Wolverines are searching for a replacement (or two) for former center Jon Teske, who exhausted his eligibility after a two-year run as the starter.

The center position is especially vital to Michigan under the stewardship of Howard, a former NBA All-Star big man. Last season, in Howard's first campaign, the center played an integral role in how the Wolverines defended ball screens. On offense, U-M utilized the center as a screener and roller — and also on more post-up possessions than in years past under former coach John Beilein.

Howard's usage of his centers was what drew Dickinson, a highly-touted recruit who was ranked No. 42 overall. But Dickinson wasn't initially sure of how things would play out on the court. After all, Howard had never been a head coach before.

But he watched as the Wolverines won the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in November, going from unranked to a top-five team, and was sold. Before, Dickinson hadn't believed Michigan's offense suited his skillset.

"But then, the more I thought about it," Dickinson explained, "I was like, 'If I want to play in the NBA, this is the offense I need to be accustomed to playing in.' And I really adapted and adjusted to it, and now I really like the offense that he's running.

"It just fits today’s game, and then I felt like me and him, the connection we have, it’s just great. Learning from another man who played your position and knows the skills of what it's like to be a 7-foot guy, it's a feeling that I can't really describe, but it’s just a great feeling."

Dickinson is learning just how different the game is at the college level. Everything — from the players, drills and pace of the game — is significantly faster. In high school, Dickinson said, he was able to relax during certain drills. On defense, he could sit back and wall up on defense, forcing smaller players to shoot over him.

Left, Hunter Dickinson (24) competes with Nike Elite Youth Basketball League team Takeover at the Pacers Athletic Center in Westfield, Ind., Saturday, May 11, 2019.
Left, Hunter Dickinson (24) competes with Nike Elite Youth Basketball League team Takeover at the Pacers Athletic Center in Westfield, Ind., Saturday, May 11, 2019.

Dickinson learned quickly that those habits would have to change. When he first began practicing with the Wolverines, he found himself winded after a couple trips up and down the court. He was upset with himself and wondered, "This is not usually how it's supposed to be." Slowly, he has made progress with his conditioning.

"I think more and more, the practices that we have, the way that we're practicing with playing and stuff like that, I'm getting better and better conditioning every day," he said. "I’m not where I want to be right now, but I’m happy with the progress I made and I just know there’s more work to be done and so I can't wait to see what it'll be like in another month."

On defense, Dickinson is learning how to fight for position and push other players out of the paint so that they can't catch the ball close to the basket. It's more work — and it happens on every possession.

Offensively, Dickinson has been a quick learner. He said he's able now to throw his body around near the basket, whereas in high school, he couldn't be as physical in order to avoid foul trouble. And his passing — one of the most impressive aspects of his game — has carried over.

"I feel like the game isn’t too fast for me," Dickinson said. "I think it’s slowing down, especially since I first got here, it’s definitely slowed down for me mentally, seeing plays, seeing cutters, stuff like that, passing and stuff that I'm getting a lot better at with the college game."

Two weeks ago, forward Isaiah Livers was asked to name the starting lineup and chose Davis as the starting center. But that doesn't mean Dickinson couldn't eventually earn the job. The Wolverines are counting on him to play a big role in his first season — and he's working to make sure he can deliver.

"I just have to play my game," Dickinson said. "Over time, as I get adjusted to playing college ball more and more, I'm starting to become even more comfortable playing out there. I’m just trying to continue to improve every day."

Contact Orion Sang at osang@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here's how you can gain access to our most exclusive Michigan Wolverines content.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan basketball Hunter Dickinson already hitting freshman wall